Friday, May 30, 2008

Meditation in Schools

Newsweek has an article up about a program in Washington, DC to teach schoolkids Transcendental Meditation. This program has been a source of controversy among parents and I admit that I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I wholeheartedly support teaching meditation to kids. I think our society would be a lot better off if we got serious about teaching kids how to manage stress, and there are a number of other possible benefits from meditation including expanded realization for those who are predisposed to it and practice diligently. It also has been shown to calm kids down, which helps them learn better. What I don't completely get, though, is why it has to be Transcendental Meditation that these kids study.

While the TM devotees probably disagree with me, there's no particular benefit to doing TM over other forms of meditation and this assertion is supported by research. The biggest differences found by experimenters were between meditators and non-meditators, not between students of different meditation systems. TM has been accused of cult-like behavior in the past, and while their abuses do not appear to be in the same league as the actions of groups like Scientology, I still think that it is a cause for concern. They do usually charge thousands of dollars to teach students to sit with their eyes closed and repeat a mantra over and over again, which to me seems like an excessive fee for something so simple. This is it, folks:
  1. Sit comfortably with your spine straight. Cross-legged is fine, Lotus is better if you can do it - but don't wreck your knees.

  2. Pick a mantra, a simple sound that you can repeat over and over again. The classic "AUM" will work fine for this.

  3. Close your eyes and begin repeating the mantra.

  4. Do this for twenty minutes every day.
Now aren't you glad you read this blog? If you're interested in trying out the technique I just saved you $2500!

I also wonder if the organization might have scrubbed that information from Wikipedia. The article on Transcendental Meditation has a lot of information about the benefits of the technique, but no description of how it's actually done. Also, see the talk page. The organization is clearly trying to spin the article. If the technique is so obviously great, why do they need to do that? And maybe it's just me, but teaching a technique trademarked by a large organization reminds me a little too much of some of the disastrous attempts to commercialize the school system.

Furthermore, some of the other techniques that could be taught instead carry a lot less of the cultural baggage which is the source of most of the complaints. Zazen immediately comes to mind here, as it can be practiced without even the minimal trappings of Soto Zen Buddhism. As practiced by the Soto school, the technique is just sitting - no initiations, no mantras, no pujas. Furthermore, Zazen is done with the eyes open and some research suggests that while eyes-closed meditation makes reaching certain states of consciousness easier it makes those states more difficult to integrate into daily life. I would think that integrating a more relaxed consciousness into daily activities should be one of the key goals of any meditation technique taught to schoolchildren.

I realize that the TM organization is funding the program and without that funding kids probably wouldn't be meditating at all, so I still think that on the whole this is a good thing. Meditation is a positive practice however it is done. It would be nice, though, to see some sort of non-denominational meditation technique taught that doesn't require the support of an outside organization which might have its own agenda.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

This Applies to Magick, Too

On Wednesday Etzel Cardeáa, a psychology professor from Sweden's Lund University, gave a talk at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, Texas discussing the current state of modern parapsychology research. I found these comments of Cardeáa's from the article about the talk particularly illuminating:

But there has been extensive research into whether phenomena like spiritual possession or altered states of reality are legitimate, he said.

"People assume there is no scientific research. In fact there is more than 100 years of scientific research," he said.

Cardeáa said there are two problems with parapsychology: the skeptics and the people who believe in everything. Neither look at actual scientific evidence.

If we could get this idea through the heads of everyone in the magical and scientific communities, I think the stage could be set for some serious breakthroughs in our understanding of the universe.

Mass Arrests in Kenyan "Witchcraft" Killings

Last week I commented that I was glad to see the recent lynching of supposed "witches" in Kenya being taken seriously, and that arrests had been made in the case. There are many countries around the world in which such killings are tolerated, or even tacitly condoned. Kenya is apparently not one of those countries, however, because the authorities there have made more arrests - of 120 people believed to have been involved in the killings.

From the article:

"The operation is very successful and will go on until all the suspects are arrested. They are being interrogated before they are taken to court to face a series of charges," Nyanza province police chief Antony Kibuchi said.

Many of them will face murder charges, which carries a mandatory death sentence, he added.

Let's hope this makes anyone who is contemplating burning their neighbors for witchcraft think twice. Also, let's hope that the consequences for being caught up in this sort of deadly hysteria are clear to everyone, at least in Kenya.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Revising the Keyword Analysis

The Golden Dawn Lesser Ritual of the Hexagram opens with the analysis of the keyword INRI and the LVX signs, like so:

Yod Nun Resh Yod.
Virgo, Isis, mighty mother,
Scorpio, Apophis, destroyer,
Sol, Osiris, slain and risen,
Isis, Apophis, Osiris,

The Sign of Osiris Slain (sign),
The Sign of the Mourning of Isis (sign),
The Sign of Apophis and Typhon (sign),
The Sign of Osiris Risen. (sign)
L, V, X, LUX, the light of the cross.

The Lesser Ritual of the Hexagram represents the macrocosmic component of the operant field and as a result are very important to the practice of any sort of practical magical ritual. For Thelemites, though, the keyword analysis is distinctly "old Aeon" - that is, it is based on the formula of Osiris rather than that of Horus. Of course, Thelemites can also use the Star Ruby and Star Sapphire to open an operant field rather than the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram/Lesser Ritual of the Hexagram, but I have also been interested over the years in coming up with a keyword analysis that would be more "new Aeon."

Eventually we did develop a revised keyword analysis that my magical working group has used to good effect for a number of years. It is based on the version found here in a ritual written by Benjamin Rowe, but it has also gone through a number of changes from Rowe's version. Here's how it goes:

Yod Resh Nun Yod.
Isis, Nature, the Fullness of Earth,
Horus, Volition, the Triumph of Sol,
Set, Guardian, Lord of the Threshold,
Tahuti, Perfection, Uniting them All.
Isis, Horus, Set, Tahuti,

Isis in Fullness (sign),
Horus Triumphant (sign),
Set the Liminal (sign),
Tahuti, Nefer-Neteru (sign).
Isis, Horus, Set, Tahuti,

The linking of Earth with the Stars (sign).

The various signs are given as follows:

  1. For ABRAHADABRA, the Sign of Osiris Risen.

  2. For Isis in Fullness, elbows square and hands open, with left arm up and right arm down, looking upwards and to the left. Similar to Mourning of Isis reversed.

  3. For Horus Triumphant, clench fists and place left hand on heart, with right elbow square and right arm up. Like a reversed Hailing Sign of a Magician from Liber XV with fists clenched instead of hands open.

  4. For Set the Liminal, the Sign of Apophis and Typhon.

  5. For Tahuti, Nefer-Neteru, both arms held straight out to the sides with right palm up and left palm down, stepping forward onto right foot.

  6. For MAKASHANAH, both arms forward with palms up, rising upwards as though lifting the rising Sun.

  7. For The Linking of Earth with the Stars, both hands open and placed flat over the heart.
Feel free to try this out on your own and let me know how it works. I have found it to be much more effective than the original in my own practical work.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Shapeshifting in Nigeria

According to African folk beliefs, witchcraft practitioners can transform themselves into animals. This concept is not limited to Africa - many cultures with Shamanic-style spiritual traditions teach that their spirit workers can do the same.

Most scientific investigators have concluded that these transformations are psychological in nature and involve the spirit worker uniting his or her consciousness with the experience of being an animal in order to access certain forms of wisdom and power that reside in the natural world. Modern psychologists have seen cases where mentally ill individuals have believed themselves to be animals, and perhaps this form of mental illness occurs when the mechanism used by Shamans to assume the consciousness of animals goes awry in some way.

All of this sounds plausible to Western ears. But in yet another account of African witchcraft persecution, eyewitnesses claim to have actually seen a witch physically transform from a cat into a human being. Yes, the account is probably made up. This is a hysterical mob we're talking about, after all, that went on to beat this poor woman until she "confessed." I'm envisioning something like the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "Well, she turned me into a newt..." (awkward pause) "...I got better." But could such a physical transformation spell possibly work?

My immediate response as a magician with some education in science would be no. Magick works by shifting probabilities and the odds against being able to do such a thing are astronomical. A cat is much smaller and lighter than a human being. Where did the extra mass go? Did it wink out of existence at the moment of transformation and then back into existence when the woman changed back? If so, there should be a way to harness this ability for the production of cheap, unlimited energy. Once you can make matter move in and out of existence you can do all sorts of interesting things that are normally prevented by the laws of thermodynamics.

Pulling the energy to re-form out of the environment is equally problematic. E=MC^2 means that you need an awful lot of heat to make up the hundred or so pound difference between a slim woman and a cat. Pulling that amount of energy out of the environment would have frozen everyone to death in her immediate vicinity. Nobody looks frozen in the photo, though considering that the mob nearly killed this woman she probably wishes she could have done something of the sort when she "changed."

If this really is the result of a spell, the most likely possibility is some sort of glamour - that is, an illusion. It's much easier to cast a false image into the minds of others than it is to summon matter out of nothing. It's kind of like an invisibility spell. Making your body truly transparent is likely impossible. On the other hand, it's relatively easy to cast a spell that keeps people from noticing you - but don't try to use it to beat a security camera! A camera has no mind and thus can't be fooled without a full-fledged transparency spell.

So what really went on in this case? Aside from another mob attacking a suspected "witch" it's hard to say. Maybe she's a real magician and maybe she's mentally ill, but regardless she seems to be another unfortunate victim of African witch hysteria. "Well, we did do the nose... and the hat. But she is a witch!"

Friday, May 23, 2008

Thwarting the Octopus Spell

Professional sporting events are usually decided by such small differences in play between the two teams that sports magick could potentially be very effective. Like most people, most professional athletes have no magical training but that often doesn't stop them from crafting elaborate pre-game rituals designed to bring them good luck.

Fans aren't immune, either. One of the weirder good luck rituals in professional sports is performed by Detroit Red Wings fans, who throw octopi onto the ice during the team's hockey matches. Does it work? Well, I can't say without conducting some experimental trials, but the fans have been doing it since 1952 and the team is currently pretty successful.

The Red Wings have made the playoffs in 23 of the last 25 seasons, including the last 17 in a row (including the current season). This is the longest current streak of post-season appearances in all of American professional sports. (Wikipedia)

This year is no exception and the Red Wings are playing the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals. The owner of a Pittsburgh fish market is taking no chances and enganging in his own brand of magical warfare - he will sell no octopi to anyone who looks like they might be a Red Wings fan. Without dark octopus magick at their disposal perhaps the Red Wings will be less formidable opponents.

A clever magician who favored Detroit could probably improvise - but would an "astral octopus" really suffice?

UPDATE: I guess so. Last night Detroit's dark octopus magick proved victorious as they defeated the Penguins in Pittsburgh to win the Stanley Cup. So far no reports of cephalopod-related incidents during the series have been forthcoming.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Kenyan Inquisition

Yesterday a vigilante mob in Kenya killed 15 people suspected of practicing witchcraft. The vigilante group believed to be responsible for inciting the violence is officially outlawed and hopefully its members will be arrested and brought to trial, rather than ignored by authorities like they are in some parts of the world.

Magick can prove to be an insidious excuse for violence, as it instills fear and its use is difficult to demonstrate reliably. Just like the witchcraft persecutions in Europe centuries ago, it appears from the article that the victims were not witches or wizards or spiritual workers of any sort, just elderly folks who had managed to accumulate enemies over the years.

The times and places may change, but human nature and mob psychology stay pretty much the same.

UPDATE: Today arrests have been made in the case, just one day after the killings. Hopefully this will help keep the violence from continuing or escalating.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Tepaphone Comes to Malaysia

In Fire and Ice, Stephen Edred Flowers mentions the tepaphone. This device was used by the Free-Masonic Order of the Golden Centurium, an esoteric lodge of German industrialists that existed prior to World War II. The function of the tepaphone was simple:

This machine (consisting of optic lenses and copper coils) focussed human thought to kill at a distance using combat- telepathy to create a psychic death ray.

Apparently some folks in Malaysia are a little unclear on the difference between a tepaphone and a telephone. Someone there is sending out death curses in the form of "black magic" text messages.

Police advised the public to ignore a Short Messaging Service (SMS) text involving a so-called group of black magic followers from Indonesia trying their witchcraft through the telecommunication network.

This is probably a hoax and all, but the reason that it wouldn't work is actually kind of interesting.

In the 1980's there were rumors in the computer bulletin board community regarding a "yellow and black box" that could be used to destroy computer modems. The idea was that the device could send a high-voltage low-amperage current over the phone lines that would not trip the phone company's breakers but which was strong enough to damage the delicate microcircuitry of a computer connected to a telephone line. What made this possible was the use of crossbar switches by the telephone company. These switches connected calls by creating a direct electrical connection between two telephones, and as a result current could flow from one phone to the other.

In the late 1980's and throughout the 1990's, crossbar switches were replaced with digital devices that no longer made direct electrical connections. The information moving between the phones is now digitized and carried over high-capacity fiber optic lines, so no direct line connects the two phones any more. As a result of this new technology, the "yellow and black box" would have stopped working - that is, if such a device was ever actually built. The same thing applies to magick, in that a direct connection creates a strong magical link whereas a digital connection creates a weak link at best.

There are two kinds of magical links - similarity and contagion. A similarity link is based on the connection between two things that resemble each other, while a contagion link is based on the connection between pieces of matter that have interacted. The "voodoo doll" makes use of both of them, in that the doll is designed to resemble the target (similarity) and also incorporates pieces of the target's clothing, hair and fingernail clippings, or small items that have been in the target's possession (contagion).

Photographs are generally good magical links because they resemble the target precisely, but digital photographs are not nearly as good as the old-fashioned kind in which light from the target actually creates a reaction on the film. The best of all are Polaroid photos because they don't need to go through the extra step of development in which the final photo is created from the negative. With a Polaroid, you have a strong contagion link combined with a strong similarity link. So stock up on those Polaroid cameras and film! For the purposes of magick, digital technology will never replace them.

Getting back to the news article, before digital switching the electrical connection through the telephone network could serve as a contagion link and in theory a spell could be cast across it. However, a text message is simply a piece of information that bears little similarity to anything besides a few words traveling over the completely digital cell phone network. There is no way that a magical attack launched like that could ever succeed since there really is no magical link to connect the caster and the target. Before trying to integrate ancient practices into new technological frameworks it's a good idea to understand how the new technology actually works.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Regulating Magick

In this article that discusses possible new regulations for British psychics, this old canard gets brought up.

Kelly says the bottom line is that if psychics can speak to the dead, why has nobody claimed the $110,000 prize offered in Australia and the $US1 million ($A1.07 million) that James Randi is offering in the US, to anybody whose psychic claims can stand rigorous scientific testing?

There are actually a number of reasons. The first is the obvious point implied by the article, which is that many psychics are frauds. In fact, it's pretty hard to make money doing spiritual work without some sort of con scheme. John Edward managed to finagle a TV show based on his "psychic powers," but anyone even somewhat familiar with the technique can tell that he's a classic cold reader. He might also be psychic, but most of the time his whole spiel is just a trick.

Magical or psychic abilities provide a statistical edge, but they are not 100% effective. This is especially true with mediums, since the vast majority of spirits do not roam the Earth after death looking for a psychic to talk with. It is very unlikely that someone dead for more than a month or so will be available to chat - they either will have reincarnated or moved on into the spiritual realm. A sincere medium is left with a very small pool to draw from in terms of available spirits, and what are the odds that any given client will want to speak with one of the tiny percentage of departed souls that chose not to move on? I'm not sure, but I can tell you it's probably not enough to pay the rent, let alone fill a television show.

The second reason is that Randi doesn't actually test just anybody anymore. After at least one close call in which a low-profile psychic nearly managed to pass the preliminary test, they issued a press release stating that from now on they would only accept challenge applications from psychics with "media presence" - that is, the psychics most likely to be frauds, and for whom the downside of failure could be catastrophic to their careers. My guess is that given these constraints, the Randi foundation is certain to keep its money, and in fact I'd be surprised if anyone tries for it at this point. Among other things, by the time you reach the level of "media psychic" these days you generally are rich enough not to need Randi's money.

I don't know much about the Australian prize, but $110,000 is not very much money to receive in return for opening up a really disturbing can of worms. This is the third reason - the day that someone manages to prove that magick can produce real physical effects and is recognized by science, laws will be proposed all over the world regulating its use. For me, as an effective magician, I'm much better off having the government think of me as deluded rather than dangerous.

UPDATE: We already live in a country where this can happen. Imagine how much worse it would be with the government getting in on the action.

The Randi Foundation will be ending their million dollar challenge in 2010.

Also, browsing their applicant forum I came across this thread and had a hard time keeping myself from laughing uncontrollably at work. This woman claims that she can make people piss their pants with the power of her mind. She failed the preliminary test, but... wow. There's a spell I would like to learn! It would be so much fun at boring department meetings or dull speeches.

From the thread: "Ms. Hunter says this ability is a gift from God, and that she is one of His angels." If that's true, I think the Gnostics were right all along about the Demiurge.

Friday, May 2, 2008

They've Got It Down to a Science

I came across an article discussing Hindu complaints about the new Mike Myers movie, The Love Guru.

Some Hindus are protesting the film because it pokes fun at the whole Guru tradition and shows Myers' Guru character in many un-Gurulike situations and generally behaving badly. I'm sure these are all true statements, but... it's Mike Myers, folks! Nobody in their right mind treats the man who brought us Austin Powers as anything other than a ridiculous comedian. Of course he makes fun of Gurus. I mean, why wouldn't he? He makes fun of everything else.

Here's the spiritual technology connection. Included in the article is a helpful chart showing how much time in Hell is associated with making the film, seeing the film, and even knowing about the film but doing nothing to stop it. In this sect of Hinduism time in Hell is apparently based on a "demerit" system, just like what they use in the Army.

Making the movie, 'The Love Guru' - 30 units, 2nd region of Hell for 1000 years

Watching it for entertainment without knowing the spiritual science/significance - 2 units, Nether region (Bhuvaloka) for 100 yrs

Watching it for entertainment even after knowing the spiritual science/significance - 5 units, 1st region of Hell for 100 yrs

Being a seeker of God/on the spiritual path, knowing about the Movie, but doing nothing to stop it - 5 units, 1st region of Hell for 100 yrs

Such itemization prompts all sorts of questions. Do you still go to Hell if you do something ineffective to stop the movie? How about something you know to be ineffective? Would that be, like, 4 demerits instead? What if you watch it disapprovingly and don't laugh at the jokes? Does that lower your sentence? Or is it that if you do laugh your sentence is longer?

It seems to me that in this particular form of Hinduism you can get sent to Hell for some pretty trivial stuff, but at least it's not the eternal punishment that some Christians want to dole out for listening to a rock-n-roll song, or the flames that some Muslims wish on anyone who dares to make a cartoon about The Prophet. What all of these folks don't seem to understand is that there's a big difference between parody and blasphemy, and furthermore any religious system that is completely humorless strikes me as fundamentally weak.

It is certainly possible for a student to maintain the Pure View of the Guru while watching a funny movie in which a fictional Guru acts completely inappropriately, which I'm guessing is the source of much of the film's humor. Furthermore, anyone who would confuse a Mike Myers film with reality is probably stupid enough that they're going to get sent to Hell anyway for some other minor transgression.

In light of this I'm certainly glad to be a Thelemite - "Aye! feast! rejoice! there is no dread hereafter. There is the dissolution, and eternal ecstasy in the kisses of Nu." That sounds a whole lot better than a century in Hell for watching a freaking movie.